Rauner signs controversial abortion bill, angering conservatives


Nancy Stone | Chicago Tribune

Gov. Bruce Rauner gives a thumbs up after giving his first speech as governor on Monday Jan. 12, 2015 at the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, Ill. (Nancy Stone | Chicago Tribune)

A somber Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday signed into law a controversial measure to expand taxpayer-subsidized abortions, drawing unusually sharp criticism from fellow Republicans who accused him of breaking his promise to veto the bill.

Tensions between the moderate governor and conservative lawmakers had bubbled behind the scenes for months on the abortion bill and other issues, but Rauner’s decision to sign the bill put those differences on public display. Conservative Republicans called Rauner an incompetent, failed governor destined to serve only one term.

While Cardinal Blase Cupich was more measured in his comments, he, too, noted that Rauner “did break his word.”


Rauner, who has long supported abortion rights, said that in the end, he has “to be consistent with my values.”

“I also believe that no woman should be forced to make a different decision than another woman would make purely based on her income,” he said. “I believe that a woman living with limited financial means should not be put in the position where she has to choose something different than a woman of higher income would be able to choose.”

The new law expands taxpayer-subsidized abortions for women covered by Medicaid and state employee insurance. The state already covers abortions in cases of rape, incest and when there is a threat to the health and life of the mother. The law expands the Medicaid coverage beyond those limited cases. Illinois Right to Life, which opposed the bill, projected that the measure could mean 12,000 additional abortions per year. Another group, however, put the figure at 3,800 a year.

The expansion of public funding for abortions is opposed by those who say it violates a longstanding principle that taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for a procedure that they might oppose on moral or religious grounds. But supporters of the legislation say the limits on abortions for women who are covered by Medicaid or state employee insurance create unfair burdens and hurdles.

In addition, the law would prevent a trigger in current Illinois law that abortion rights supporters contend would make the procedure illegal in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

The Democrat-controlled legislature passed the bill on May 10, but did not send it to Rauner until Monday. That created a pressure-cooker environment surrounding the legislation, with Rauner facing an intense lobbying campaign from advocates on both sides of the issue. Each side warned that whatever choice Rauner made would be viewed as a broken promise.

But the political trick box that Rauner had to face Thursday was one of his own making.


In April, as Rauner tried to keep Republicans united in the midst of a historic budget standoff against Democrats, he termed the abortion legislation “divisive” and threatened to veto it. The governor later indicated he would support lifting the “trigger” provision but wanted the expansion of taxpayer-subsidized abortions set aside for another day.

That contrasted with candidate Rauner in 2014, who filled out a questionnaire for Personal PAC, an abortion rights advocacy group.

“I dislike the Illinois law that restricts abortion coverage under the state Medicaid plan and state employees’ health insurance because I believe it unfairly restricts access based on income,” Rauner wrote at the time. “I would support a legislative effort to reverse that law.”

On Thursday, Rauner noted he has always supported abortion rights.

“I personally am pro-choice. I always have been,” Rauner said. “I have not and never will change my views.”

Rauner also cast his previous veto threat as an attempt to broker compromise between abortion rights advocates and people who object to the procedure on moral grounds.

“I tried in the spring, and I’ve tried for months as this bill was debated and ultimately passed, to find common ground with both sides of this issue,” Rauner said at a Thompson Center news conference. “We were unable to do that. The passions run too deep.”

Rauner could have used his amendatory veto powers on the bill to keep the trigger provision intact but take out the funding portion. Lawmakers then would have gotten the chance to vote to accept or reject the governor’s changes.

Asked why he didn’t take that approach, Rauner said there was “no support on either side of the aisle for that.”

Politically, Rauner’s action sparked talk that he could face a conservative challenger in the March 2018 governor primary, a candidate spurred by groups opposed to abortion rights and faith-based organizations. Rauner’s personal wealth and the need to organize a statewide candidacy vastly limits the number of people to pose a legitimate challenge, however.

By signing the bill, Rauner also could preserve his political appeal to socially moderate suburban women, a key demographic for a Republican to win a statewide race in Illinois. Though the collar counties traditionally have been Republican-leaning, last year Democrat Hillary Clinton easily won all of them except for McHenry County.

The abortion bill landed on Rauner’s desk at a time he already had upset some conservatives by signing immigration legislation known as the Trust Act, which protects immigrants who are in the country illegally from being detained solely because of their immigration status. Before that, Rauner vetoed a July income tax increase and budget, only to see some Republicans break ranks and overturn him to end the historic budget impasse.

While Rauner could have expected criticism on the abortion issue, conservative Republicans went beyond simply accusing him of breaking his veto pledge.

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, called Rauner a “failed governor,” while state Sen. Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, said Rauner’s “flip-flopping on this issue raises serious questions on whether the governor’s word can be trusted on other matters.”

State Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee, said Rauner’s signature on the abortion bill “will ensure that Rauner serves only one-term.”

Perhaps the most stinging critique was leveled by Rep. Peter Breen, the House Republican floor leader from Lombard.

“I’ve had a front-row seat to a governor that is unable to adequately and competently administer Illinois government,” said Breen, a prominent anti-abortion rights attorney. “He is now lying to us. And so at that point, I can’t support someone like that.”

Breen also charged that Rauner had made his veto pledge to Cupich, and that “even the most corrupt Chicago machine politicians think twice before lying to a priest.”

Cupich said he was disappointed by Rauner’s decision but looked forward to working with the governor in the future. The cardinal said Rauner had personally informed him of his decision on Thursday.

“I reminded him of the promise and also my statement earlier thanking him for that,” Cupich told the Tribune. “He did break his word. He broke his word to the people, especially those who have continued to speak on behalf of the vulnerable child in the womb.”

Still, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider issued a statement saying he’s “disappointed” in Rauner’s decision, but then sought to blame Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

“While I am frustrated and saddened, I also know that Speaker Madigan and the Democrats are trying to use this issue to divide our party and elect a Madigan-backed candidate for governor,” said Schneider, a Cook County commissioner.

The issue also loomed large in the Rauner household. Illinois first lady Diana Rauner has long supported abortion rights. In 2014, it was Diana Rauner who came to her husband’s defense when Personal PAC backed the Democratic candidate in the race, then-Gov. Pat Quinn, over Rauner.

Diana Rauner and other abortion rights advocates paid for a full-page, open-letter advertisement in the Chicago Tribune in October 2014 to promote Bruce Rauner’s “clear consistent position” on reproductive rights. It quoted the future governor from a GOP primary debate in which he said, “It’s a decision that should be made by a woman with her physician, her family or minister, not by government.”

Asked Thursday if Diana Rauner had influenced his decision to sign the bill, the governor said his wife is his “best friend,” but that he’d consulted “dozens and dozens of people who I respect.”

“I’ve tried to listen and learn, pay respect,” Rauner said. “The views on these issues are deeply held, strongly, strongly felt. And I’ve tried to make a decision that I believe is best.”

Those in favor of the bill also weighed in, but props to Rauner for approving it were secondary to praise for advocates who’d pushed for the legislation.

“Today, Governor Rauner agreed with me and thousands of women and men who stood up and used the most powerful tool we have: our voices,” said Sen. Toi Hutchinson, a Democrat from Olympia Fields and co-sponsor of the bill. “Thanks to those voices, House Bill 40 will become law in Illinois. We did it!”

Democratic candidates for governor were dismissive of the Republican governor’s contribution to the effort.

“Let’s be clear: Bruce Rauner threatened to veto HB 40 and only got around to doing the right thing after an organized advertising and grassroots campaign,” Democratic governor hopeful J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “Today’s announcement does not change the fact that Bruce Rauner’s only sense of morality is whatever panders best to voters. Illinois women deserve a relentless advocate in the fight to protect their rights — and that’s exactly what I’ll be as governor.”

Chris Kennedy, another Democratic governor candidate, said enactment of the legislation “is only possible because of the power of people from throughout the state who came together to stand up to Bruce Rauner and fight for the rights of women.”

Rauner has not officially declared plans to run for re-election. Asked Thursday if he was worried about a primary challenge, Rauner brushed the idea away.

“Politics are politics,” he said.

Chicago Tribune’s Manya Brachear Pashman contributed.


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